THE manager of a classic car company has said he is "devastated" after being told it will have to pay almost £30,000 to a former employee who was sacked for complaining about his boss online.

Michael Austin won an employment tribunal against former employer A1M Retro Classics, in Darlington, after a judge heard he had been unfairly dismissed following comments he made on Facebook.

The paint sprayer was fired last February after more than five years at the company, which is based on Durham Road.

Following a row at work, Mr Austin had posted: “I don’t think I’m a bad person but I don’t think I have ever felt so low in my life after my boss’s comments today.”

It resulted in a number of other people making comments on the post, with one of the commentators making a homophobic slur towards managing director Matthew Robinson and another urging Mr Austin to "punch (him) in the face."

Sacking him, Mr Robinson said the comment breached social media policy, and had damaged the business.

Mr Robinson told the tribunal there had been a number of disputes between them prior to the incident in February and accused Mr Austin of "bullying" behaviour on more than 20 occasions.

Employment judge Declan O'Dempsey ruled Mr Austin had not violated the social media policy and added he could not control comments made by others on his post.

Describing the investigation carried out into the alleged misconduct as “minimal” and “flawed”, he ruled the dismissal unfair.

Awarding compensation of £28,560, he said: "This was an employee with a clear employment record and this was a first case of misconduct.

"If I had accepted the managing director’s evidence that there had been a string of unchallenged behaviour by the claimant I would have nonetheless found, as I do on the facts I have found, that a reasonable employer would have sought to moderate the unacceptable behaviour of the employer by issuing a warning/instruction in circumstances where, as I have found, of any reason why the employee would not have moderated his behaviour."

Speaking following the result, Mr Robinson said: "I was absolutely shocked by the outcome. I find it very unfair. We have a policy and I thought I had done everything right."

He added: "I'm devastated by it. We are a small business and we can't afford it."